The Bible’s weird. If you’ve read it, you know it’s true. Witches from Endor, Nephilim, Babylonian kings losing their minds and living as wild beasts. The Bible is weird.
One strange story that’s always troubled me is found in Judges 11. It’s the story of Jephthah. Let me remind you of what the text says.
Jephthah is asked by the Israelites to become their chief and help fight against the Ammonites. Jephthah agrees and begins to correspond with the Ammonites. Jephthah gives a historical account of why Israel has rights to the land and the Ammonites were wrong to attack them. Preparing for battle, Jephthah makes the following vow to God:
If you will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering. (Judg. 11:30–31)
After defeating the Ammonites, Jephthah returns to his home, and the first person to come out to greet him is his one and only daughter. Jephthah tears his clothes and tells his daughter about his vow. She then tells him to honor his vow but to allow her to go to the mountains with some companions for two months to mourn her virginity. Jephthah permits this request, and then we are told he “did to her according to the vow which he had made” (Judg. 11:39).
What’s going on in this passage? Did Jephthah kill his daughter to fulfill a vow to God?
Let me be clear, if Jephthah killed his daughter, we can be sure it wasn’t something God would condone. Child sacrifice is clearly condemned in the Old Testament. In this case, the Jephthah story would be describing his atrocious acts but not prescribing what God condones. The fact that God used a man who committed such an atrocity is nothing new when it comes to Old Testament figures. David, Solomon, and Abraham were all men God used to do good but also men who greatly sinned. But is there another way to interpret Jephthah’s story?
There are three clues within the text that suggest something different happened with Jephthah’s daughter.
The first clue is that Jephthah likely knew the Law of Moses. He explains, in detail, the history of Israel, Moab, and Ammon in Judges 11:16–26. Jephthah’s account follows the exact order of events given in Numbers 20–22. Jephthah also seems to be well aware of what Numbers 30:2 says: “If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.”
Not only does Jephthah know the Law, but it seems like he raised his daughter to know the Law and fear the Lord. After finding out about her father’s vow, she says, “My father, you have given your word to the Lord; do to me as you have said, since the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the sons of Ammon” (Judg. 11:36). Since Jephthah knew the Law of Moses, and even raised his daughter to know it, it seems odd he would disregard all the passages forbidding child sacrifice (Lev. 18:21, 20:3; Deut. 12:31, 18:10) and disregard the fact that the penalty for child sacrifice was death by stoning (Lev. 20:2). It is also odd Jephthah would disobey a clear command of God so he could obey a command of God.
The second clue can be found in the vow Jephthah made. In Hebrew, the letter Vav is used as a conjunction joining two parts of speech. In English, we have many different words that function as conjunctions. Not so in Hebrew. The one letter Vav represents multiple different conjunctions. It can mean “and,” “together with,” “but,” “so,” “then,” and “or.” Many scholars have translated this Vav conjunction as “or.”
If that’s the case, then Jephthah’s vow says, “Whatever comes out of the doors of my house…it shall be the LORD’s, or I will offer it up as a burnt offering” (Judg. 11:31). This vow could be interpreted to mean that if the first thing to come out of the house was appropriate to offer as a burnt offering, then Jephthah would offer it as a burnt sacrifice. However, if the first thing to come out of the house wasn’t appropriate to offer as a burnt sacrifice, “it shall be the Lord’s,” meaning it would be dedicated to the Lord.
The third clue helps us to clarify whether Jephthah’s daughter was offered as a burnt sacrifice or dedicated to the Lord. When she heard the vow her father made, Jephthah’s daughter asked to take two months to mourn her virginity. This is odd if she was going to be killed. Why not mourn her impending death? Why not marry a man for two months?
It seems plausible from the fact that Jephthah’s daughter mourned her virginity that she was going to be dedicated to the Lord and live as a perpetual virgin. This idea is also reinforced by how the text emphasizes her virginity as part of her father’s vow. “At the end of two months she returned to her father, who did to her according to the vow which he had made; and she had no relations with a man” (Judg. 11:39). This would have been a tremendous sacrifice on Jephthah’s part, considering he only had one child. By dedicating his daughter to the Lord, Jephthah wouldn’t have grandchildren to carry on his lineage. We see Hannah make a similar sacrificial vow to dedicate her child Samuel to the Lord (1 Sam. 1).
The Bible’s weird, but maybe not as weird as it seems at first. When we take the time to investigate the text and look to interpret it carefully, we can bring clarity to difficult passages.